Followers and friends of a Southland-based spiritual movement plan a memorial service for its longtime leader on Sunday. Sri Daya Mata led the Self-Realization Fellowship for more than five decades. The organization helped introduce Eastern philosophies to Western seekers.
Her followers knew her as the mother of compassion, which her name, Sri Daya Mata, signifies. The 96-year-old spiritual leader started life as Faye Wright. She was the daughter of a prominent pioneering Mormon family in Salt Lake City.
"Her forebearers had been part of the original Mormon group that came with Brigham Young during the founding of Salt Lake City," explains Brother Chidananda, a monk in the Self-Realization Fellowship. "Her grandfather actually was a prominent architect and he was one of the architects of the famous Mormon Tabernacle."
In 1931, when she was 17 years old, she met and started following Yogananda – the author of the widely-read spiritual book "The Autobiography of a Yogi." He founded the yoga-based teaching of the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles in the 1920s. By the end of his life, he named her as a successor.
“Yogananda had made it clear for a couple of decades. He had been training Daya Mata for this future position. So in 1955 she became the worldwide head of Self-Realization Fellowship,” says Brother Chidananda. He spoke at the Self-Realization Fellowship’s international headquarters. It sits atop Mount Washington in northeastern Los Angeles on several acres, including gardens open to the public each day.
During the decades that Sri Daya Mata led the Fellowship, she was noteworthy for avoiding the kind of fame many spiritual leaders seek.
“She would have none of that," says Brother Chidananda. "She said it’s all about each of our own individual relationships with God. But because she had that complete egolessness, that complete humility, she paradoxically became such a revered example for all of us to be living the spiritual life. Just by who she was and what she radiated, she became a world figure.”
It’s pretty unusual for one man or woman to lead such an organization for so long.
“Oh, I would say it’s almost unprecedented," says Christopher Capple, theology professor at Loyola Marymount University. He specializes in Indian religions.
“It is very unusual. And I think it shows the modern face that Yogananda put to the world that he had the vision that an American woman would have the capacity to run what became an extremely complex organization and provide the leadership that gives long life."
Capple describes the mark Sri Daya Mata leaves behind.
“She will be remembered as a superb organizer. She’ll be remembered as an exemplar of the yoga way of life. She’ll be remembered as an inspiration for those who seek in their life to be in service to others.”
Sri Daya Mata died in Los Angeles at age 96. A public memorial service is being held Sunday, December 12, at 4 p.m. at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.